For former governor John Winant, his day, finally, will arrive in June

  • FILE - In this March 27, 1941 file photo, U.S. Ambassador John Winant, left, signs documents which gives the United States 99-year leases on British properties in the western hemisphere as Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England looks on in London. Winant, also a former New Hampshire governor is being honored in his state as a group works to have a bronze statue made in his honor. (AP Photo/File)

  • The agreement leasing certain Atlantic bases to the United States for 99 years was signed in the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street, London on March 27, 1941. Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchil, right,l and American Ambassador John Winant congratulate each other after the signing. (AP Photo)

Monitor columnist
Published: 3/31/2017 10:33:21 PM

I think John Winant would like the statue lawmakers will unveil in his honor on June 30 at the State Library.

It’ll be low key and solid, like the man himself. It’ll stand forever, like Winant’s giant impact, yet there’s a simplicity to the gentle-looking figure wearing a suit, a coat draped over his left arm, his right hand out in a welcoming gesture.

“He was very human, very down to earth,” Rep. Steve Shurtleff of Penacook told me by phone. “It’s been written about Governor Winant that he would rather be with the working people, the blue collar people than he would the dukes and the earls and the wealthy of England.”

Shurtleff created a bipartisan committee of lawmakers, historians and administrators four years ago to honor this man, who moved to Concord from New York City as a boy, then attended, and later taught history at, St. Paul’s School.

Winant was a three-time New Hampshire governor who helped crystallize our alliance with England during World War II. In short, he helped crush the Nazis and win the war without ever picking up a weapon.

As June approaches, you’ll be hearing stories about one of the greatest paradoxical figures of the 20th century. Winant’s background reads like a tabloid story, full of scandal and bravery and historical context. Yet, few across the country know anything about him.

A few years back, John Stewart interviewed author Lynne Olson during her book tour promoting Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour.

Stewart knew about two of Olson’s central characters, Edward R. Murrow and Averell Harriman. Winant, however, was the person Stewart had “never heard of.”

Have you?

Winant has been getting more ink and air time lately, as the Legislature’s efforts to honor him have progressed. But he remains one of the most important politicians to have ever slipped through the cracks of history, never getting the credit he deserved.

And with that gap in history came a cloak of anonymity that I’m sure Winant’s family didn’t mind. He had an affair with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s daughter while serving as the United States ambassador to Great Britain.

He committed suicide at his Concord home in 1947, two years after the war had ended. His cause of death prevented him from burial at St. Paul’s. Instead, he was laid to rest at Blossom Cemetery before the school came to its senses 20 years later and allowed him to be buried there.

“It just magnifies the man himself,” Shurtleff noted. “All the things he had to deal with in his own personal life.”

No one, of course, knew what lay ahead when Winant was elected governor in the 1920s and again in the early 1930, during the Depression. What they knew was that the state’s highest elected official had a heart of gold.

John Milne, a local historian and former newspaper editor, relayed a story via email that reflected what made Winant tick.

It wasn’t politics or his party affiliation.

It was something else.

“I’ve always thought the key to Winant was a job interview he conducted as head of Social Security with Tom Eliot, a New Dealer who later became a member of Congress,” Milne wrote to me. “Winant asked Eliot what he thought was the most important characteristic of a politician. Eliot, taken aback, sputtered that he thought it was intelligence and integrity. No. It was kindness.”

That led to the stories of Gov. Winant handing money to victims of the Depression. Right near his downtown office.

“They’d be sitting on the walls of the state house,” Shurtleff told me. “He would go over and talk to them and give them 50 cents so they could get something to eat and get a place to stay that night. He had that common touch.”

He brought that touch overseas to England after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named him ambassador, shortly before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He followed Joseph Kennedy in that role, followed a man who favored appeasing Adolf Hitler’s aggression.

Winant was different. While Kennedy predicted that England would suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of the Nazis, Winant saw a strong Anglo-American alliance, victory and a free Europe. While Kennedy ran to the British countryside during German air raids over London, Winant stayed in the city and helped firefighters put out fires and pull victims from the rubble.

“He was beloved by the British people,” Shurtleff said.

Winant reportedly was with Churchill when news broke that the Japanese had attacked Peal Harbor, thrusting the United States into the war. He was there in Yalta and Tehran, where Allied leaders met to plan for a post-war world.

Somewhere along the line, Winant, who was estranged from his wife, fell in love with Churchill’s married daughter, Sarah Churchill, and the two carried on an affair for at least two years.

Winant came home to Concord after the war. Sarah Churchill chose to pursue her acting career and a party lifestyle, breaking Winant’s heart. A Republican who had aligned himself with the liberal FDR, he was an outcast within GOP circles, halting what had been a promising political career. His wife, a wealthy New York socialite, was gone, and Winant had money troubles.

The man who had worked as the Social Security system’s first administrator, had established a minimum wage for children and women, had brokered a relationship between FDR and Churchill, had given to the poor, had flown bombing missions over Germany during World War I, was suffering from depression.

He shot himself to death at his home on Pleasant Street on Nov. 3, 1947. Seventy years later, a statue will honor him. A groundbreaking ceremony will be held Monday morning at 9.

The finished product will be different from the statues that currently pay tribute to giants like John Stark and Franklin Pierce.

Those are up high. On pedestals.

“You’re looking up,” Shurtleff said. “We talked to the artist and he pointed out to have Winant down eye to eye, with the people. He’s approachable. That’s the way he was.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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